The eternal search for the next new sound – THIS IS NOT A TEST #25 (transcript)

Published June 13, 2015

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I love the Internet, I really do. But sometimes I just want to take it out behind the barn and shoot it. It’s been very good to me, but I can’t help thinking we’d all be better off without it. Without this podcast. Without Facebook and Google. Without everything and everyone at our fingertips. I seem to go through phases or periods where everyone on line seems to be mad at me. My behavior doesn’t change, it’s just, every once in a while the planets will line up a certain way or something and a bunch of people who seem to hate me come bubbling up to the surface. I don’t really care about that, what some shmoe online who I’m never going to meet thinks of me. And I’ve been on line – and alive – long enough to know that some people are just crazy and it’s got nothing to do with me or anyone else. But it’s still weird. To have those kinds of people hate you for no reason.

Rachel Dolezal is feeling that hate right now, more than I ever will. I’m sure you heard about her on Friday, the head of the Spokane NAACP, a proud black woman whose parents say is actually German and Czech – in other words, a very white woman. I don’t know her, but I’ve known plenty of white people who probably would have liked to identify as black, they certainly assimilated themselves into black culture. But it’s a tricky subject, how you see yourself. How you identify. It’s up to us to decide that for ourselves, isn’t it? If not then we let others do it for us and we’re back to the days when whoever was in control could shut you out of whatever they wanted to shut you out of because you had “one drop” of whatever kind of blood in you. I think we all have the right to say who we are. But I’ll bet this is going to piss off a lot of black people, and justifiably so. They’ve had their culture appropriated so many times and have been victims of abuse at the hands of the white world for so long that it has to be a slap in the face when a white person comes along and says, “Oh, hi, I’m black too!” when that person didn’t really have to go through what black people go through – or what they have gone through for the past, oh, four or five centuries. There’s a big difference between absorbing aspects of a culture that may not be native to you and out and out claiming that you are of that culture.

The absorbing of each other’s cultures is one of the great things about the world today. When I was younger and more naive I thought that kind of thing would be the end of racism in the world. It seems like it could be, right? If the kids are all cool with each other and respect each other and enjoy aspects of each other’s culture, it seems that it would only be a matter of time until racism wasn’t even a thing anymore. But, you know, the reality of the situation is it doesn’t matter if half the kids in the world feel that way, it’s the other half who are the problem. Anyway, I have some experience in this sort of cultural assimilation thing, since when I was in my 20s I grew dreadlocks and played in a reggae band with a bunch of black guys, which seemed reasonable to me at the time. And when I got pushed out of the band because one of the members didn’t really want a white dude in the band, that seemed reasonable too. I understood it anyway. I wasn’t pulling a Rachel Dolezal – I didn’t change the way I talked or tell people I was black, because…that’s really just kind of crazy. But I guess the experience makes me a little more understanding of people who might get overly caught up in things and start to identify themselves as someone that the outside world doesn’t necessarily see them as. It’s an interesting story anyway, and I’m sure it will stir up a lot of debate and cantankerous Tweeting and everyone will get really mad and not understand each other and in the end everything will go back to being exactly the way it is now.

Well, speaking of black culture and reggae and our old friend the Internet, the Internet informs me that it’s been 35 years since the release of the last Bob Marley and the Wailers album, Uprising. Last as in the last one he worked on start to finish. Confrontation was released after Uprising, and officially that’s the last Wailers album, but a lot of the tracks on Confrontation were finished – or created – after Bob had died, so it’s more of an odds and ends thing than a full album. It still has some great songs on it, it’s a Bob Marley album after all. I don’t doubt that Bob would have continued to write great songs, but is it horrible of me to say that he died at a good time? I mean, if he had to die young. I say that because those guys were no slouches when it came to embracing new technology and new sounds. The Exodus album had the first recorded use of a Vocoder for christ’s sake, and you wouldn’t expect that from a group like the Wailers. The Vocoder is that robot voice effect that you heard in a lot of early hip hop and some disco. Usually saying something about booty. Knowing they were always hunting around for new sounds and hearing some of the cold, synth-laden stuff that Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, more so Bunny Wailer, recorded in the 80s, I’m kind of glad I didn’t have to hear a 1988 Bob Marley album. I think it would have broken my heart to hear someone who created and used such a distinctive organic sound recording an album with computers. And it would have happened, there’s no doubt about that. No one escaped the tinny clang of the 80s unscathed. The decade of the gated snare.

Musicians in general are a restless bunch, and pretty much in a constant search for new sounds. Add to that every generation looking for their sound or their new thing and you’ve pretty much got a constant state of flux for the sound of popular music. Some small segment of every generation will always be throwbacks and seek out older sounds, but for the most part, if you’re born in to it, you’re born in to it. It’s why new sounds irritate older people. It’s alien shit, and they – or we, me being an old man myself – don’t know how to react. That’s part of the joy of being a teenager, of course, listening to music your parents hate. Even if you don’t really like it yourself, you can suffer through it in order to torture your parents. It’s worth it. It usually isn’t until we get a little older that we start to appreciate other kinds of music or older forms of music. And all modern music is electronic music when you get right down to it. I said that Marley had a distinctive organic sound, but it wasn’t like they were using acoustic instruments. They were electrified, they were electronic to the extent that any amplified instrument is. I suppose “organic” applies more to the method used to trigger the sound than the machine used to make the sound.

A computer or a keyboard is a trigger, but so is an electric guitar. The difference being the guitar is manipulated and made unique by the technique – or lack of technique – of the player. A computer generated sound is generally not. Meaning if 50 people hit a key on a synthesizer or a computer music program and the configuration is the same, the sound is going to be pretty much the same. If not exactly the same. But if you set up a guitar and amplifier in a room and 50 different guitarists come in and play it, every one of them are going to sound different. And 49 of them will probably be really annoying. But that’s the organic aspect of that particular trigger, the human aspect. One isn’t better than another, they’re just different. Modern music is so processed and sanitized that you hear less of the human element anyway. Even the metal kids now, their records sound like synthesizers rather than guitars because they are so processed, so flattened out. And no one allows any human mistakes to remain in the final mixes anymore, so it may as well be computer generated.

I think that’s what I miss, the mistakes. The little stutters and false starts and errors that humans make when they’re playing music. In the studio you generally record the same track a lot of of times, until the musician plays through it without mistakes. But that repetition tends to make the performance a little flat, and you often go back to an earlier take to get back some of the “spark” of a fresh performance. There’s a ridiculous box set of the Stooges Funhouse sessions, 7 or 8 discs with every take of every song. And you can hear very clearly on there that the first takes were usually a little manic – you know, even for the Stooges, then they’d settle down and do some better takes, but if they repeated a song too many times they lost the fire. That’s probably not a good example because they recorded those songs live in the studio, with the entire band playing. No one does that anymore, and no one else really did it at the time Funhouse was recorded. But more people should try it, because it makes for a great record when all the stars align properly and the lead singer doesn’t pass out in the hallway somewhere, covered in mayonnaise and glitter.

But new sounds, yes, all musicians chase them. If they didn’t, there wouldn’t be 68,000 pedals you can plug a guitar in to, never mind that those 68,000 pedals all do the same four things. Add to that the fact that a lot of musicians are born tinkerers and modifiers and you’ve got a whole lot of experimenting going on. You’d think the upshot of all that experimenting and tinkering would be a never ending parade of new sounds, but that really has never been the case. Most of the listening public has an aversion to new sounds anyway, which is why history shows us so many pioneering musicians or bands who were ignored while their descendants, the people who did pick up on the new sound and ran with it, snagged all the glory. The worst thing a musician or a band can be is first. It’s much more lucrative to be the 10th or 100th person to use a “new” sound. By that time the public has adapted or come around to the new thing and they’re ready to embrace it. On rare occasions listeners will go back and show some begrudging respect to the actual innovators, but usually not.

Popular music and its changes and twists and turns is a pretty recent development anyway, it sprouted up like a pimple at the same time we started to identify such a thing as “youth culture.” There was no youth culture in the 19th century, and for much of the early 20th century. People didn’t treat children or teenagers as a separate society back then. They didn’t even have the term “teenagers.” Kids were just little adults and they were expected to behave like little adults. Music was music, and no one targeted young people with a certain type of music. Until the turn of the century “music” meant sheet music that you played yourself, usually on a piano. There were Gramophones, but they were as expensive as a piano, and not something a kid would have in their room. World War II changed all that, they way it changed a lot of things, and after that war ended, suddenly all kinds of Americans had all kinds of money to spend, and their children also had wallets. Once the advertisers caught on to that fact, viola! Youth culture was born. A record player in every bedroom, where the kid could shut the door and play the music they wanted to hear. Or get themselves knocked up or whatever.

So we’ve only really had 60 years of youth culture and rock and roll, but we’ve crammed a lot of technology into those 60 years. When the Beatles were making records they didn’t have access to very many effects pedals, just a couple of fuzzy noisemaker things, and instead of a synthesizer they had a giant contraption called a Mellotron that actually played different loops of prerecorded tape. The loops were recordings of acoustic instruments, mainly wind instruments. You’d press a key on the keyboard and a playback head would drop down onto the tape and produce sound. Hit a higher key, the tape plays faster and creates a higher pitch, hit a lower key, the tape slows down and you get a lower pitch. It was really that primitive only 50 years ago. Or that imaginative, I’m not sure which. Everything worked off vacuum tubes and wires. Then transistors started gaining wide use and everything changed. The introduction of the transistor had the same effect on music as the synthesizer or sampler did later, they changed the sound of everything very quickly.

But again, you know, even though the changes in sound could be dramatic, they weren’t very wide ranging. Everyone sounded different, they were all still the same. The reason someone like Jimi Hendrix sounded different – aside from his hands, anyway – was because he had a guy who customized his electronics for him. So if there was a pedal that went SQUONK when you stepped on it, Jimi would get his guy to make it go SQUOOOOONK-UH, and there he was, making sounds that had the other guitar players scratching their heads. But Hendrix isn’t a good example either, because a lot of his sound was in his technique and his extreme use of the existing equipment. By that I mean taking the amplifiers of the day and just turning all of the knobs as far up as they would go and seeing what would happen. Amps didn’t have adjustable preamps or gain stages in those days, so to get them to sound the way Hendrix did you had to push them to the limits of what they were made to do. Or beyond the limits, if you could. Everyone figured out what Hendrix was doing with his electronics pretty quickly, but they couldn’t replicate his hands and his brain, so he always had the Hendrix field to himself. No one else ever sounded like him. As opposed to someone like Eddie Van Halen, who also had a revolutionary sound when he first came around, but as soon as everyone figured out how he did it, they could replicate it. Just hang around in any Guitar Center store anywhere in the world on a Saturday afternoon and you’ll hear what I mean.

Which brings up something else, and that is the modern guitar player. In the 60s there wasn’t a rock and roll school you could go to to learn how to play. You had to learn by watching and copying and practicing and maybe eventually you’d get somewhere. But now you can send your kid to an actual rock and roll school – they call them musician’s institutes, but they are rock and roll schools – and they sit there in classrooms and learn how to play rock and roll. And they learn theory and technique and speed and they all come out sounding like the educated, soulless little clones that they are. None of them will ever write a song you’d want to listen to because they’re all technique and skill and zero creativity and ingenuity. They never have to figure out how anything works, they don’t have to experiment. And besides, I’ve said it before and I suppose I’ll end up saying it again some time, rock and roll can’t be taught in a school. It isn’t science, it’s emotion, it’s attitude, it’s art, and you can’t teach someone to be an artist, all you can do is teach them the techniques that artists use. Artists are born. A lot of people who want to be artists but aren’t disagree with that idea, but you’d expect them to, wouldn’t you. There’s no school that can teach someone how to be Jimi Hendrix or Bob Dylan or Mozart or Louis Armstrong. If you could teach anyone to do what they did, those guys wouldn’t be seen as extraordinary, would they?

Times and environments shape all great musicians, but they don’t create them. Just look at how many great players and songwriters came out of terrible circumstances. Growing up in poverty or deprivation, but creating things that no one else could create. All of country music has it’s roots in hillbilly mountain music, made by people without two carrots to rub together. Blues, jazz, reggae – all came out of disenfranchised communities. Their times and their environments created the circumstances, but when I named every one of those musical forms you probably thought of a particular person, a particular player or songwriter who may have helped create the form but also transcended it. Those people weren’t taught to do that, you know. It was in them to do it, and the environment or the musical form just gave them a vehicle. Bob Dylan didn’t create folk music. He started out imitating Woody Guthrie for christ’s sake, but he transcended all that because he was a born artist. Mozart was trained the way all young musicians were trained in those days, but they didn’t all become Mozarts because they weren’t born with whatever he was born with.

What does all that have to do with the sound musicians are after? Nothing. It’s just me going off down the usual side road and forgetting what I was supposed to be talking about. But I suppose there’s a connection there. I’ve been saying “musicians” as if what I’m talking about applies to all musicians, and it doesn’t. Musicians aren’t a generic lot. And it’s mainly the gifted or the bored who seek out new sounds. New ways to get their shtick across. A new way to blow peoples minds, maaaaan. From beating on hollow logs to the first person to stick something in the end of a trumpet to make it sound funky, there’s always someone looking for some sort of new chord, some new way to rip. And it all builds on what went before. Like making that trumpet sound funky – that was the sound they were trying to emulate with the wah pedal for the guitar. Wah, wah like a muted trumpet. And when digital sampling keyboards came on to the scene in the 1980s, they were capable of sampling any sound in the world, right? But when you bought one you always got some discs with stock sounds on them, and what were most of those sounds? Acoustic instruments. Horns, strings, flutes. Just like the Mellotron. And one particular sample from one of those stock sounds discs was used on about a million records, which goes to show that not everyone who picks up an instrument or walks into a recording studio is a restless, new-sound-seeking genius.

But the ones who are are pretty interesting. I’ve played in bands with a lot of people, from people who don’t think much about individual or overall sound to a guy who sat in front of a 16 track recorder with my wah pedal one night for three hours, looking for the perfect spot to set it and leave it, because he was chasing a certain sound that was in his head. That’s called a “cocked wah” by the way, setting the wah pedal in one spot and leaving it there rather than rocking it back and forth as god intended. And because “cocking your wah” is a thing, electronics types figured out how to replicate that sound with an envelope filter and stuck it into a pedal so you didn’t have to do something as savage and imperfect as setting a certain angle of a wah pedal with your foot. A cool thing, an envelope filter. I built one myself, but I changed the value of a couple of components in the plan to change the sound to my liking. Which isn’t my way of suggesting I’m a musical genius, I’m far from anything close to being near that. And I’m not bored, so I guess I have to come up with a third category of sound seekers. Like the…kind of searching, seeking…I don’t know what. See, now we’re back to just saying ‘musicians’ again. Well, if that’s how it’s got to be, that’s how it’s got to be.

It’s really something to hear new sounds on a record or on the radio though. It’s exciting. The sound itself and the wondering how it was done. Just the newness of something. Anything. Even if it’s only new to you. If you think back far enough you’ll remember a time it’s happened to you. And it was great. It was like discovering whisky or leather jackets or getting to kiss that girl or that boy for the first time. That good. I’ve never been able to create a new sound in a recording studio, or even when I used to sit in front of a four track in my apartment. I tried, you know. I swear I did. I dredged the depths of the stuff I had available to me, which was usually mostly guitars and crappy keyboards, whatever little stompboxes I could get my hands on. Everything I found was something that was already out in the world somewhere. But it was fun trying to find something. Hitting an acoustic guitar with a spatula and whatnot. But I’m not sure there are a lot of new sounds to find. With our existing instruments anyway. And if you think introducing a new sound is a tough sell, try introducing a new instrument. That’s absurdly difficult. People expect to see certain things on their rock and roll stages and bagpipes and steel drums aren’t among those things.

So I don’t know. It’s a tough playing field out there for you kids coming up who want to flip the music world over on its head. I don’t see how you’re going to do it. But then no one saw hip hop coming, so I won’t count you out yet. But these established forms we have, I think we’re stuck with them for the foreseeable future. If every new sound is built on an existing sound, I think we’ve heard most of what’s out there to be heard. I won’t say “everything,” that would be foolish. But almost everything. There will be new permutations for sure, and things that are new within established forms, sounds, styles, methods, and that’s probably enough to keep everyone happy. Most of us don’t demand much from our entertainment. And those of us who do are usually the ones driven to go create something anyway, to satisfy a need they have in themselves. You see that all the time in almost every creative endeavor, and even in technology – people who want something for themselves that doesn’t exist, so they go invent it. That’s why we’re such a cool species. because we’re never satisfied and we think we know everything.

I was going to do my 26th episode next week, the six month mark, and then change my schedule to bi-weekly, every two weeks, but Carol talked me out of it. She thinks such a move would be bad when I’m so fresh and young and groping around and trying to build an audience. Well I don’t know if I’m trying to build an audience, but she’s right of course, consistency is the thing. But I’m what is clinically known as really fucking lazy, so the idea of going bi-weekly appealed to me. But I’m also a procrastinator, so doing this every two weeks would be just like doing it every week. Meaning I’d do everything the day before the episode is released. So I wouldn’t really gain anything by going bi-weekly. In fact I’d probably just lose momentum or steam or juice or mojo or whatever they call it in the podcasting world. Actually the podcasting world has a phrase for it: podfade. Not very imaginative or creative, I know, but podcasters on the whole aren’t a very creative or imaginative bunch. But podfade is when someone starts to podcast and after a few weeks or a couple of months they realize that it might not be as easy and fun as they thought it was going to be, so they give up or record less frequently – they fade away. Well, I’m past the fade point. I think. I’ll play this out until it doesn’t make sense for me anymore. Or until it doesn’t make sense for you. Every week! Fuck the world! In fact I’ll be right back here next week, next Saturday, doing a poetic turn on tamales or refrigerators or whiffle balls. Something awesome like that, right? You don’t want to miss that, do you? See you then.